Interview with Janin Stenzel and Lena Stamm, Directors of ‘Easy Said Up High’

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‘Easy Said Up High’ is a short drama filmed across three nations during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2021-22. Directors Janin Stenzel and Lena Stamm also act in the film, which follows the story of best friends Celia and Helen as they maintain a friendship over Zoom, battling all of the things that life threw at them during that weird, surreal time. Locked up in their own homes, Celia and Helen navigate career-changes, dating and exercising. ‘Easy Said Up High’ is an enchanting reminder of all of the things we learnt about ourselves in isolation, and the steps that we take – big and small – to live our lives to the fullest.

Lena Stamm as “Celia” (above) and Janin Stenzel as “Helen” (below)

How did you both meet and begin working together?

LENA: When I moved to London, a friend connected me with Janin to give me some tips, as she had been living in London previously. We went to the same university 4 years apart and apparently had met before, which I wasn’t aware of. We connected so well on the phone that we decided to do something together. I took the train to Paris and we started developing and shooting straight away. 

JANIN:  Lena and I had first briefly met in 2006 at Film University Babelsberg in Germany. I had just started my acting studies and Lena had just finished hers. It wasn’t until 14 years later that our paths crossed again. Lena and I found out that we had a lot in common: we had both worked internationally, living in different cities and establishing our acting careers in countries where we’d had to learn new languages. We started having contact again in 2019 when Lena planned her move from Stockholm to London. Since I had spent 2 years in London I could share some of my experiences with her, to help start her new life in this great city. A few months later in January 2020 we decided to see each other in Paris, where I was living at that time. That’s when we started creating our story about two friends living in Paris and London.

How was it that you both became interested in film/theatre as a career?

LENA: For me it goes back as far as Kindergarden, my first role was a tree in a fairy tale – then came the princess and then the evil queen, and it just went on from there. I always knew I wanted to act, but still wanted to go about it the ‘proper’ way, as in, getting a good degree and then going to Drama School. The filmmaking came later – I thought for a long time, that acting is the thing I am good at, but now I love writing, filmmaking and producing as well. So much so that I now have my own production company Elbee Films.

JANIN: I had always enjoyed acting as a child – inventing characters and situations together with my little brother and my friends. In elementary school, I loved to recite poems and create little sketches in our English classes. I wanted to become an actress, singer or dancer. When I was a teenager I took dance classes, joined several choruses and bands, but my passion for acting grew much stronger. I started acting in drama classes at school and I knew this was what I wanted to do for a living.

How did the idea for ‘Easy Said Up High’ come about?

LENA: We thought we could use our real situation in life; me living in London, Janin in Paris, and develop a story around it. And it started with the location. Janin said, ‘hey, I have a friend who has access to a rooftop where you can see the whole of Paris and Montmartre, how about we let our characters talk there?’ What a fantastic setting it was and so much joy to start filming like that. 

JANIN: When Lena came to Paris, we created a scene between two friends. We got super excited and wanted to shoot that scene straight away. A friend of mine had an apartment with access to the rooftop at that time, and that was the perfect location for our scene. 

How did you manage to film ‘Easy Said Up High’ over three different countries during lockdown?

LENA: This was challenging at first, but once we made certain decisions it was a lot of fun. We decided to shoot from home, with our iPhones and the help of our partners. Yes, they were recruited as props manager, light designer, boom operator and DOPs. 🙂 Sometimes we shot together while connecting via video chat on one device while shooting, and sometimes one shot her part first and the other one came in later. We used the small windows when it was allowed to go outside or to meet people to shoot the scenes where other characters were involved. And when Janin was allowed to fly to Rio, she recruited her husband’s family to drive cars and help out with the equipment. It has been a journey for sure. 

JANIN: Lena and I met in Paris at the end of January in 2020, just before the pandemic started to get serious here in Europe. Then Lena went back to London, and I stayed in Paris. We started developing our story around the circumstances we found ourselves in. Lena kept filming in London, and I shot my scenes here in Paris. Our partners helped us a lot during this process. Luckily, we had just become good friends with our new neighbours, who made it possible for us to shoot the scene with Helen’s neighbour.

JANIN: We actually planned a different ending to our story which was supposed to happen in London with both friends reuniting, but travel restrictions and quarantine measurements made it very difficult for me to go to London. My husband and I planned to spend a few weeks in Brazil with his family so we decided that Rio would be the perfect place for Helen to end up in this story. I travelled on my own to Rio, as my husband managed to go to Brazil a few days earlier, and I had to find a way to shoot Helen’s scenes at the airport. In the early morning hours, I met a very nice man from Italy – Mauro – at the airport Charles de Gaulle. He had just ended his shift and was waiting for his train back to Paris. I asked him if he would like to help me shoot a scene for my short film and since he didn’t have anything else to do, he said yes. He was very sweet!

What provoked you to focus on a friendship rather than say, a romantic relationship?

LENA: That is a really good question. I think one reason was, that we have both been living in different countries for the past 10 years and we know how invaluable longtime friendships are, especially when you are in a new city. And the idea of Celia trying to date during lockdown, was hilarious and so real at the same time.

Arinder Sadhra as “Rameira” in an unforgettably hilarious lockdown dating scene

JANIN: The first idea of ‘Easy Said Up High’ was to tell a story about two friends, so we stuck to it. The pandemic also made it more complicated to shoot with other actors. We could have told more about Celia’s new relationship or Helen’s relationship with Peter and then Gabriel, but it would have become a different film and probably a longer one, too. 

What are your filmmaking influences?

LENA: Greta Gerwig, Hans- Christian Schmid, Tina Fey to name a few. And inspiring recent talks with colleagues, especially from the Women in Film and TV events here in the UK.

JANIN: There are many filmmakers and screen writers that I admire, like Pedro Almodóvar, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Wong Kar-War, for example.

What were some of the biggest obstacles during the production of your film?

LENA: We never knew when we’d be able to shoot certain scenes. There was one time where we hoped to finish the film together back on the rooftop in Paris, but the rules changed so quickly, as we all know, that we had to go in another direction to be able to finish the film at all. So, we are incredibly proud that after all this ,we got over 30 festival invitations worldwide so far. It seems we hit a nerve with our lockdown dramedy! 🙂

JANIN: A big challenge was finding the right time to shoot while being strictly quarantined. In Paris we had a hard lockdown for 8 weeks, when we could only leave our apartments for one hour during the day. My husband was working from home and our apartment at that time was only 36 squared metres. When Lena and I wanted to shoot a scene together, we had to find a time slot when both our partners would not be in any zoom conferences, working or busy with something else. For some shots we needed them as camera men and for others we just needed them to be really quiet (which can be quite challenging when living in 36 m2).

Nicola Peluso as “Veronica”, the nightmare Zoom boss

What message do you hope to spread with you work?

LENA: I would like to inspire people to just do try out their ideas. At first, I was so hesitant to shoot on my iPhone, because as an actress, I was used to being around high quality camera equipment, but not being able to get a proper camera in lockdown in two countries became suddenly very freeing. Buying some extra equipment and walking around London, Paris and Rio with your iPhone; it’s amazing what you can do with it. I wouldn’t want to shoot all my projects like that, but for this one, it was the best decision and made things so much easier under these circumstances.

JANIN: We’ve made this film during a time of uncertainties and worries. We didn’t know how long we’d be locked in our apartments and we wanted to keep working. It was a good moment for many of us artists to explore our creativity in a restricted space. Often, we create an idea, but we hesitate to realise a project due to circumstances – feeling like it’s imperfect or questioning the quality of our idea and procrastinating. Lena and I had many conversations about how we wanted certain things to be perfect or better, and we agreed that it is much more important to use what we have and make the best of it instead of waiting for the perfect equipment or the perfect circumstances and never to finish our film.

What can we expect to see form you both next?

LENA: I just finished shooting a historical film as an actress in Germany and can’t wait to see the result. As a filmmaker I am developing an anthology about a family from the Second World War to the present day, focusing on transgenerational trauma. It is a very personal story, and I am spending a lot of time talking to my parents and relatives and researching my family’s history. So, no light comedy this time. 🙂 The Swedish-English production I have been working on for a while with a wonderful team in Sweden will go into proper post-production soon, and is planned to come out in Spring 2022. 

JANIN: In Germany you can see me in the mini-series ‘Abgenabelt’ in the role of a midwife on Amazon Prime. This summer I shot a short film in Paris playing a mother during World War II, and I am excited to see the final version of the film. And as a filmmaker, I have a few ideas I am working on… Thank you so much Maisie and London Rocks Film Festival for inviting us to chat with you.

EASY SAID UP HIGH’ screens at Whirled Cinema on Friday 5th November 7 – 9 pm

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